On January 21, 2017, the day after the newly-elected President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, was sworn into office on Inauguration Day, an estimated half-a-million people descended on Washington, D.C. to participate in the Women’s March on Washington. It was a remarkable turnout, a massive demonstration of resistance against Trump, a man whose rhetoric during the campaign signaled a platform of policies many believe to be a direct threat to women’s rights. Expressing solidarity against a man who was caught on tape condoning sexual assault against women, an estimated three million or more people joined additional protests in cities throughout the United States, while hundreds of thousands more were drawn to protests in cities around the world.
Though I live in the wider metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., I was not among those who joined the march.
As a rule, I do not participate in protests, which I define as a gathering of people who come together to collectively express their support for a cause, typically in defiance of official policies seen as undermining the cause. I did not bother with any of the Tea Party protests that invaded Washington in the years after former President Barack Obama was elected. I ignored the Million Man March that converged on Washington in 2015. When I lived in New York City during the 2004 election season, the most I ever did while in the presence of anti-Bush and anti-war protesters in Central Park was to give them a thumbs-down. When I see pro-life protesters on the Metro, on their way to one of the annual March for Life rallies in Washington D.C., I sigh and return to what I am reading.
Why the aversion to protests? It is not because I oppose the right to protest or demonstrate in support of a cause. It is not because I secretly begrudge the first amendment right to engage in peaceful assembly. It is not even because I necessarily disagree with the purported agenda of any given protest (I support equal rights for women; I also support the Tea Party goal of smaller government). And it is not because I believe protests are meaningless, or that they unfailingly do more harm than good.
Instead, I do not join protests, or any mass gatherings with a political purpose, because I view mass demonstrations of solidarity as a triumph of emotion over reason. For me, they represent a collective display of exhilaration over equanimity, euphoria over sobriety, and exhibitionism over dispassionate dissent. Protests are not unlike concerts, political rallies, and sporting events in how one relinquishes a feeling of sober autonomy and gives way to the sound and fury of a maddening crowd.
When emotion rules one’s actions, especially the actions of a political mass movement, and especially in a political atmosphere as polarized as the one in which we find ourselves, I am deeply skeptical that reason has sufficient sway to guide the cause in a disciplined and constructive manner. I am skeptical that a demonstration will retain its purity of cause and not be contaminated by the medley of voices, opinions, agendas, and prejudices that jump on the bandwagon of a collective outpouring, especially when the disparate emotions inspired by a protest homogenize into rage. Moreover, the multiplicity of perspectives that unite in a protest, especially one on the magnitude of a half-a-million people, is not only a whirlwind of sensual stimulation and intellectual confusion, but will almost certainly force me to associate with views I don’t agree with, or with persons I do not want to be affiliated with, and it is not in my nature to partake in solidarity with views and people I care not to legitimize with my participation. Finally, I seek to avoid any complicity in the transgressions of those who seek to undermine the legitimacy of a protest by trying to turn it into a riot.
While I distrust emotion as a guiding star, I do not regard it as an absolute enemy of rational discourse.
I do not mean to suggest that the emotional intensity of a protest automatically means a protest is inherently unworthy, or is never inspired by lofty ideals, or is energized exclusively by a chaotic blend of irrational motives. A march on Washington to express solidarity with the cause of women’s rights is a march that, in theory, is in keeping with the celebrated tradition of first-generation feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, who advocated for causes like temperance, women’s suffrage, and abolitionism. Similarly, a march on Washington to express support for a pro-life agenda deserves respect for its view that all life is sacred, even if one disagrees, as I do, with its assessment of when life begins, or deplores, as I do, its eagerness to obstruct the right of women to make their own choices about abortion. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the most extraordinary speeches in American history at a March on Washington which turned into one of the most memorable political rallies in American history. Protests are not without merit simply because they are singed with a passion for a cause.
It may, in fact, be the case that without passion there may never be sufficient energy or motivation for positive change in society. Many, if not most, people will not bother to vocalize concerns if they do not feel strongly about an issue. Focusing exclusively on the mundane concerns of one’s daily life is a surefire way to take wind out of the sails of a social current moving in the direction of change. A well-organized protest movement that is focused in its message can pull people from the desultory routines of daily life and unite them to convene in the collective outpouring of a mass demonstration. Any candidate who has won an election knows that there is power in numbers. A mass demonstration is a loud and explicit announcement of which way the winds of the electorate are blowing.
This does not mean, however, that passion should be the primary force serving at the vanguard for change.
Passion is an instigator. But without the steady hand of reason to govern the impetus for change, passion readily becomes a precipitator of disorder and anarchy, which are not in the interest of anyone but those who, as Michael Caine says to Christian Bale in the movie Dark Knight, ‘want to watch the world burn’.
Mass demonstrations are ultimately composed of atomistic individuals distinguished by the specific ideas, perspectives, abilities, personalities, and experiences that define them as unique individuals. While one may argue that the cause which unites is greater than the refractory impulses of the parts that divide, any collective is nonetheless susceptible to the clash of idiosyncratic perspectives. One will find partisans who have walked many disparate paths of politics and polemics—committed activists and casual observers, hipster millennials looking for a thrill and old fart Boomers trying to relive the Sixties, sly provocateurs and pacifist do-gooders, people in tasteless costumes and people wearing shirts with pithy sound bites or catchy shibboleths that have long since become cliché. In short, one will be assaulted by the din of thousands of people asserting their oneness with the cause while perhaps struggling to draw attention to some eccentricity by which they seek to achieve three seconds of fame in a crowd so large it’s like cable television with half-a-million channels.
As a public spectacle, it can be stimulating, and even inspiring.
But as a platform for the communication of cohesive, actionable ideas it can prove unhelpful. There are few blatant instances of the breakdown in a protest’s sense of purpose more instructive than the signage one encounters in a protest. Protest signage is not unlike advertising: succinct, spicy, clever slogans plastered on poster boards, designed to capture attention, articulate one’s voice, and persuade onlookers to enlist in the cause. One envisages a prospective protester spending time drawing up signs beforehand, like copywriters on the acclaimed television show Mad Men brainstorming for the perfect phrase or pitch to headline an advertising campaign that will convince a consumer to buy a product. But, if I were to spend more than a few seconds to consider a specific slogan, ignoring all other signs in the vicinity that might distract me, I will find I either agree or disagree with the message the slogan conveys, assuming I can take the message at face value (and not get caught up analyzing the double and triple meanings of each word scrawled across a poster board). Moreover, I will find my agreement or disagreement hinges on certain conditions and assumptions. For example, a sign that says ‘all life is sacred’ is one I can agree with, but that does not mean I agree with the person who holds up the sign on when life begins. The same interplay of conflicting inner sentiments potentially arises with the sight of every slogan one sees in a protest. In a protest of half-a-million people, that’s a lot of slogans, and a lot of deliberating. With insufficient time to unpack the meaning of each sign while in the din of a crowd, the inevitable result, at least for me, is confusion.
Besides the din and confusion of a crowd, there is also the risk of being associated with ideas and people I do not support. For example, if I had participated in the Women’s March, I would not have known, as I do now (having conducted some research), that Linda Sarsour was a co-chair of the march. Sarsour is a well-known Palestinian activist. This, by itself, is harmless enough. But it turns out that some members of her family are tainted by ties to Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood network in America. This includes Jamil Sarsour, who ‘pleaded guilty in an Israeli military court to giving $40,000 to [Adel] Awadallah,’ a ‘Hamas military commander…who is known to have planned suicide bombings in Israel.’ It is, of course, unfair to hold Linda Sarsour accountable for the actions of family members. Yet imagine my surprise, or lack thereof, when I came across a tweet she wrote in 2012: ‘Underwear bomber was the #CIA all along. Why did I already know that?! Shame on us—scaring the American people.’
When I saw this tweet, which implies the CIA somehow orchestrated the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bomb an airplane mid-flight, I found myself feeling thankful I did not lend my support, via my participation in the protest, to a woman who is apparently partial to a dark conspiratorial view of American foreign policy. I also found she was a supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I believe was severely misguided. She also supported Bernie Sanders, whom I consider to have the wrong ideas for reforming our society, in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. This was not a woman with whom I wanted to be associated.
Should I have put aside my differences and focused on the matter at hand, i.e. that the Women’s March was designed to give voice to women who feel betrayed by Trump’s agenda, a goal which, in principle, I have no reason to censure? Maybe, but this was as much an anti-Trump march as it was a women’s rights march, and though I did not vote for Trump and consider him unworthy of the office, it’s not as if I disagree with everything he says or every policy he has proposed. For example, while I lament his extreme rhetoric and his diatribes against trade pacts like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I applaud his emphasis on lowering corporate tax rates and reducing regulations.
Finally, as much as discord over policy inclinations makes me hesitant to join a protest, I am also wary of the possibility that violence may erupt when the passions of a large crowd turn into rage. Not only does violence encourage disorder and anarchy, but it distracts attention from the substance of issues at the center of attention, and risks delegitimizing the cause for which people are marching. While I found no reports of violence or arrests at the Women’s March, it was only a day before, during protests of the Inaugural Parade, that news outlets reported on the eruption of a small-scale riot in downtown Washington which saw the windows of a Starbucks store smashed and a limousine torched and burned. Considering that the riot was sparked in part by Trump’s divisive rhetoric demonizing Muslim immigrants, it was ironic, to put it mildly, that the torched limousine turned out to be owned by a Muslim immigrant who may not be able to afford to pay for the damages.
Neither Trump nor rioters seem to be mindful of a former American president who helped guide the nation through the most divisive time in its history, a time in which divisions led to an outright civil war. I was happy, therefore, to see an image of one protester at the Women’s March dressed as Abraham Lincoln, holding up a sign that said ‘Malice Toward None’, a quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in 1865. Indeed, it is not every sign at a protest that I dislike. Unfortunately, one can never be guaranteed that such sentiments will universally prevail in a mass demonstration.
If passion is not suitable for serving at the vanguard of change, it is also not a suitable outlet for everyone who wants to contribute to the cause. I am an introvert who shuns crowds. I am reasonably well-read in philosophy and I share the philosopher’s preference for deliberation and contemplation, as well as his distaste for becoming a slave to passion. Unleashing emotion is an act I try to avoid.
It is not as if I am immune to emotion.
But I do seek to minimize its impact, and all I ask is that the call to tolerance for a diversity of views extend to someone like me who opts for alternative ways to act upon his support for positive social change. I often find, however, that tolerance and understanding are not forthcoming. For example, when I told my fiancée Kara, who took part in the Women’s March in D.C., that I do not participate in protests, she half-joked: ‘you don’t have to; you’re a straight white male.’
Presumably, the point is I can afford to be ‘silent’ because policies and rhetoric propounded by Trump will not harm me like they will harm women and minorities. While I take issue with the presumption that I am unaffected by the divisive atmosphere Trump has stoked (e.g. he severely taints reasonable concerns one might express about political correctness by engaging in rants that are clearly xenophobic and racist and then dismissing critics as too politically correct and overly sensitive), I resent the implication that a distaste for protests is interpreted as indifference to the interests of those who choose to protest. I also resent the charge that taking offense manifests discomfort—some would call it ‘fragility’—rather than frustration at being dismissed out of hand because I think mass demonstrations serve up a platter too rich with emotion. I regard the remark as a microaggression that shows disrespect for a personal view about collective political action. It manifests a ‘with us or against us’ mentality that presumes that, if I don’t join the protest, I’m against the cause, or I don’t care about the cause, or that I am deaf to the concerns that motivate a protest.
I am, in short, regarded as an enemy to the cause.
Never mind that I have written an article about how I discovered I might be more sexist than I thought, an article in which I explore how simple semantics can mask attitudes about gender relations which undergird patriarchy. Never mind that I have written an article in which I express my shock that Trump’s initial refusal to disavow David Duke revealed how racism in America ‘is not going the way of history’ but is instead ‘still making history.’ Never mind that I have written about what I think a white man has to say about race in America, in which I write: ‘If W.E.B. DuBois said the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, the problem of the twenty-first century is: what do we do now that we have crossed that line? How do we address the ongoing legacy of institutional racism? How do we address the ongoing resource discrepancies between rich and poor communities which, in part, reflect this history of racism?’ And never mind that I have written an article about understanding white privilege in terms of Bayes Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers, in which I offer a quantitative interpretation of the concept of white privilege in an attempt to ease the cognitive dissonance with which a white person may confront the notion of white privilege. It would seem to me that my views on social justice can find much common ground with the miscellaneous interests that linked up with the Women’s March.
Some may suggest it is presumptuous on my part to express any views at all.
As a straight white male, I’m supposed to shut up and listen. But as I write in my article about what a white man has to say about race in America, in which I concede that as a white man I cannot internalize the experience of being black in America (similarly, as a man I cannot internalize the experience of being a woman in America), I also write: ‘That’s fine. But then what? Am I simply to be told what to think? That is not helpful, since it also strikes me as axiomatic that rote learning pales in comparison to asking questions and having occasional disagreements and carrying on with a healthy skepticism, all of which are key parts of any honest discussion and analysis, and are also among the most effective ways to cultivate active interest in a subject and ultimately to build awareness and understanding.’
In other words, if all I am to do is listen, how can anyone be sure I’ve understood what I am asked to listen to? What if I have a question about what I am hearing because I don’t follow the logic, or forgot something stated earlier in a lecture? What if my powers of reasoning are less than those of the lecturer? Psychologists tell us there are four components to an intelligence quotient (IQ): verbal, quantitative, working memory, and processing speed. What if my working memory is not as robust as my verbal comprehension, so I can understand what is being said in a lecture, but I easily forget what was said earlier in a lecture and want to ask a question to remind myself? Each person is equipped with a unique IQ composition, not to mention a singular blend of education and experience.
Similarly, not every person likes crowds, and not every person sees a protest as the best way to advocate for a cause. As noted, I have written articles about an array of issues. Racism. Sexism. White privilege. Each of these issues has subtleties that must be considered rigorously, and I try to do so in each article. They must be carefully addressed point by point, and for me, it takes a lot of time and thought. I am perfectly willing to concede that I am not as smart as the next person. In a protest, one sees signs and hears chants about so many causes and from so many angles it makes your head spin. It’s hard to keep track. At least it is for me, and it makes me want to retreat to a quiet place and think.
I recognize it would be ludicrous if everyone thought like I do.
I recognize that a non-protester who prefers to navigate through the innumerable angles of a controversy is not the most action-oriented ‘social justice warrior’. This is partly why, unlike Plato, I don’t advocate for the philosopher-king as a ruler. But I make no request that everyone be like me. I am only one person who chooses to go about things in a way best-suited to my personality and how I think. If everyone were like me, it may be that we would live in a truly atomistic world where there is no potential for organized action in pursuit of common goals. Fortunately, that is not the world in which we live. But each of us has his own way of going about things. I prefer to sit calmly in a quiet room in silent contemplation, organizing my thoughts, probing assumptions, drawing conclusions, and writing out a statement of why I agree or disagree with a position or call to action. For what it’s worth, that is my contribution to the national conversation about women’s rights, or any other issue pertaining to social justice.
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